by Anne Carson
A Box of Grieving
A review by Mark Gustafson
Anne Carson calls herself a maker of things. That has never been plainer than with this so-called "poem" (a Greek-derived word meaning "a thing made"). A unique assemblage of bits of conversation, letters, postmarked stamps, memories, cut-up photographs, drawings, paint, staples, etc., Nox is here replicated as one long accordion foldout in a clamshell box. Carson says: "I had a need to gather up the shards of his story and make it into something containable." The visual art of this extraordinary new book, with scissors-and-paste used to powerful effect, adds layers of expression to its dazzling verbal art.
Despite her partiality for the Greeks, especially Sappho, Carson has long been fond of Catullus, the 1st-century BCE Roman poet. Catullus 101 ("Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus"), a poignant, ten-line elegy for his brother who died in a distant land, lends a structure. But the main focus is her troubled brother who, after a twenty-two year absence, also died in a distant land. (We have encountered him before, primarily in Plainwater.) While the Latin nox, "night," was a common metaphor for death, obscurity, and speechlessness, it does not appear in this poem (although Carson might have lifted it from Catullus 5).
On the left-hand pages Carson dismantles Catullus’s poem piece by piece, giving one Latin word per page with a list of lexical entries. But the entries are not all imported directly from the Oxford Latin Dictionary. Instead, Carson smuggles in material to suit her purpose. Most obvious is that some form of nox (noctis, nocti, etc.) nearly always shows up in an illustrative citation, suggesting the omnipresence of the gloom of night.
The right-hand side has more variety. The voices of the narrator, her mother, her brother, and his widow, are distinguished typographically. Carson writes in prose, and quotes Herodotos, Plutarch, Virginia Woolf, and others. The numerous epigrammatic one-liners seem to be the poet’s own thoughts excerpted from elsewhere (e.g., "Fish are abundant yet the nets rest, full of shadow"). Or they are (unacknowledged) snippets of Beckett, Basho, and the Bible. Most of the mixed media appears on the right side, too.
Meaning arises in the interaction between verso and recto, in the often subtle links between various scraps of adjacent material. As the once apparently disjointed parts start to find a context, the reader’s initial bewilderment slowly but surely diminishes. Carson may seem to meander and be deliberately oblique at times, but she is only telling it slant. Patience is required and rewarded.
Carson connects what she is doing to the Greek word historia, "asking about things," and to Herodotos, the first historian. She says: "Now by far the strangest things that humans do -- he is firm on this -- is history. This asking. For often it produces no clear or helpful account . . . Historian can be a storydog that roams around . . . collecting bits of muteness like burrs in its hide." She adds: "To put this another way, there is something that facts lack."
What about translation? The reader expecting a deepened appreciation of Catullus will most likely be disappointed. "Nothing in English can capture the passionate, slow surface of a Roman elegy." Indeed, but her complete version, appearing two-thirds of the way through, is more like an afterthought. Still, Nox reflects an understanding of translation that Carson ingeniously links to history:
I came to think of translating as a room . . . where one gropes for the light switch. I guess it never ends. A brother never ends. I prowl him. . . . Prowling the meanings of a word, prowling the history of a person, no use expecting a flood of light. Human words have no main switch. But all those little kidnaps in the dark. And then the luminous, big, shivering, discandied, unrepentant, barking web of them that hangs in your mind when you turn back to the page you were trying to translate.
She does not mean to translate Catullus, then, so much as her brother. "I study his sentences the ones I remember as if I’d been asked to translate them." Despite the despairing tone, the elusive aims of history and translation are likened to finding light in the night.
There is much "poetic honey" in this memoirish book, seeping out all over the place. The repetition and interweaving of words like egg, dog, light, sun, night, ashes, and stairwell are part of the vast web Carson spins. Her verbal wit and startling usage of words -- such as "storydog," "prowl," and "discandied" -- are just what we have come to expect. The deeply personal tone is remarkable. Witness the way she conveys her brother’s sadness in this bit of reimagined telephone conversation: "Do you work. / Yes. / Are you happy. / No. Oh no." At the same time, a certain reticence can make the book feel a little cold, lacking in emotional heat. The author remains somehow aloof, and keeps us readers at a distance as well.
But Carson is neither seeking help with her own grief nor chronicling her own experience. In making the reality-based art of Nox, she attempts to render something beautiful from ugliness. She carefully selects and arranges the gathered shards, splinters, and fragments; the design, while still inscrutable in some ways, feels authentic, resonant with life’s contingency, unpredictability, and mystery. Not everything happens for a discernible reason; so much is obscure, unknowable. All of us wrestle with our own experiences, think jagged thoughts about them, seek to make them fit even though they are stubbornly ambiguous. Carson, a "negotiator with night," closes without resolution: "He refuses, he is in the stairwell, he disappears." We are all acquainted with the night; our grief lessons keep on coming. But rarely, if ever, have they been as beautifully presented as in Nox.
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